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Jul 15, 2013 07:52 PM

WSJ: FAD FOOD NATION ("Something to Chew On" By Trevor Butterworth)

This is a very worthy read.

It takes a refreshing, largely unbiased, look at some of the more commonly held food (mis)conceptions.

Highly recommend.

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  1. Do you mean Something to Chew On by Mike Gibney? Fad Food Nation is the name of a review of that book by Trevor Butterworth that was in the Wall Street Journal.

    1 Reply
    1. Only available to subscribers. I was hoping that with a name like Trevor Butterworth it would turn out to be a pen name for Will Ferrell or someone.

      Instead it turns out that Butterworth is a stealth shill for industry which, since it's the WSJ we're talking about, doesn't surprise me. That doesn't mean whatever points he makes are not valid, but I'm going to assume he has an agenda.

      28 Replies
      1. re: ennuisans

        Dear "ennuisans:" I'm sorry I'm not really Will Ferrell. For the record, I am neither funded nor have received payment from the food industry or any other industry; STATS is non-profit and non-partisan - and is funded by foundation money. As STATS' mission is to examine the use of science and statistics in the media and public policy, we have taken on several issues that activist groups hold dear (and fundraise from). Their standard response is the ad hominem you used (from the comfort of anonymity) rather than respond to the specific scientific and statistical or historical and philosophical criticism. I'm guessing that's where you got your "stealth shill" from. The fact is that activism needs to be treated as skeptically as any industry, perhaps even more so as belief often provides a stronger motive than profit. My experience as a journalist and critic for nearly 15 years is that this happens but rarely in the mainstream media, where activist claims usually drive stories. In my WSJ review, I did not have the space to note that Gibney takes a very careful look at the industry funding issue and the activist response; it's enlightening. What I did note is that he discusses how green/food activism has been, literally, deadly in the developing world. This is either a fact or it's not.

          1. re: ipsedixit

            Also ipsedixit, I'm sorry if I seemed to be critical of you in my earlier reply. Any crankiness was not directed at you at all, and if I was not clear about that I apologize.

          2. re: TrevorButterworth

            aw, mr. butterworth, you had me until you used the phrase "mainstream media."

            1. re: TrevorButterworth

              I like how you use an ad hominem attack (accusing me of getting my information from unreliable activist groups, rather than the Milwaukee-Wisconsin Journal Sentinel



              to accuse me of an ad hominem attack wherein I carefully pointed out that your having an agenda does not mean you aren't correct. But I guess that's why you're the professional and I'm a guy trying to make sense of the food he eats.

              If the facts in the JS article are incorrect, I'd rather you took it up with them; unlike me, they have Pulitzers to defend.

              All that said, on the one hand I agree that the science does get muddled and that at times consumers act on misinformation. I take just about everything I come across with a grain of salt, as the most well-meaning source can work from bad information. And many times, in sorting out the good information from the bad, I have to, as they say, "consider the source". It's not a perfect system, but I'm not on salary for this.

              So let me link to a list of your publications at Huffington Post:


              I'm going to take it for granted that these were posted to HP with your permission and blessing. And one thing every article, every single one, has in common is this: government and media get science wrong, often at the expense of industry.

              Make no mistake, Mr Butterworth: this represents a bias, as much as that of any other activist. I keep their biases in mind when I read their reports, and I will keep yours in mind as well.

              1. re: ennuisans

                I wrote a 29,000-word piece criticizing the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel's coverage of BPA. It was sourced to scientists at the EPA, NTP, and EFSA, all of whom accused the Journal of playing fast and loose with the facts. The Journal did not respond to my calls, or the criticisms, but published an attack - the one you cite - which elicited this response in part from me showing how they distorted this too:


                I was subsequently invited by the FDA to speak about how the media gets science wrong. Nothing reported by the Journal has panned out, and even the Silent Spring Institute has recently endorsed the FDA's research.

                1. re: TrevorButterworth

                  "But this is not the only reason why Hunt is a problematic choice to review the vom Saal laboratory results. Hunt and vom Saal are both signatories of the Chapel Hill Consensus, and are the two most prominent scientific voices claiming that BPA is dangerous. They are also co-authors of a commentary in Environmental Health Perspectives (along with other Chapel Hill signatories) criticizing Good Laboratory Practice. Vom Saal has also been a highly public defender and promoter of Hunt’s research."--Trevor Butterworth, 2009


                  So you found fault with the paper's findings by attacking the scientists who supported their findings, and in response JS did the same. Admittedly I've only skimmed, but this is starting to look not so much like scientific debate as dogfighting.

                  And it's a shame, because in your own article there do seem to be some valid points being made. But when a writer repeatedly uses a logical fallacy with one breath and rails against the same fallacy in the next I have difficulty trusting them with 29,000 words of my time.

                  1. re: ennuisans

                    No - that is not an accurate characterization. If you, as a newspaper, commission a study from a scientist whose findings challenge the regulatory consensus, and then bring in his active collaborators to provide supposedly independent validation for that study, then there's a clear conflict of interest. This is one of a myriad problems with the report. The Journal was warned by the scientist leading the National Toxicology Program's expert panel on BPA that vom Saal's research couldn't be trusted; the paper ignored that warning, and did not tell its readers of the repeated failure to replicate vom Saal's original findings. I note that the FDA will soon announce another massive study - the biggest and most comprehensive to date - that has failed to replicate those findings again. This is much more than a dogfight:



                    1. re: TrevorButterworth

                      So here we have two articles that are considerably similar. Both with the same byline. Both published on the Forbes website in their op/ed section within the last few months. Both take the format of an interview, framed by the writer. Let's look at them.


                      The one, entitled "Anti BPA Crusade Discrediting Science And Environmental Health, Says Leading, Independent Expert" makes this simple point: sure sometimes studies will show damage, but they need to be verified by other studies to be taken seriously.

                      This is the attitude of people who fire their guns in the air on New Year's Day and say "Hell, that's not going to kill anyone. And even if it did, that hardly ever happens." It puts the burden on the victim.

                      Compare this to "Leading Environmental Group Scientist Praises FDA's Ground-Breaking Research On BPA: A Tipping Point In The Controversy?"


                      In this post, we can all ignore any previous scientific finding, because as we at Chow would say, this one is "The most stupendous, the most amazing scientific finding we have seen here in the history of the FDA."

                      In this post, it is something of a shock that the "environmental scientists" would take the results of the study as given (and did not, what, riot? spit in their faces?


                      But in the end, the FDA study showed that, under specific parameters, BPA could not be shown to cause any harm. That's it.

                      And that's enough, because you can not prove a negative. And you can not use it to defend against a positive. No matter how amazing and stupendous the finding might be.

                      Edited to add links. And to say this is why I say you are biased. You approve of findings that support industry and do everything you can to discredit anything that detracts from industry. You claim your work is "bipartisan" but industry is bipartisan: it invests in what will make it money and nothing else. Your work is making you money and making industry money, and in that sense is partisan to the core.

                      1. re: ennuisans

                        I've spent six years reporting on BPA. I've read much of the relevant science and interviewed many of the key researchers. When the findings in small basic experiments cannot be replicated in larger more controlled experiments the findings are rejected: that's science. You cannot claim equivalence between a study using seven subjects and a study using 200. The key fact, which many in the media have not reported (and yes, there are studies to show this empirically) is that the studies claiming harm from BPA could not be replicated by the EPA, FDA, EFSA, and other regulatory and independent bodies. Additionally, the NIEHS, which funded many of the "bpa=harm" studies said in 2008 that they could not be used for the purposes of risk assessment because they were insufficiently methodologically rigorous. Pretty much everyone now agrees that lab contamination has been a major factor in some of the most alarming results. For reporting all this, I have been vilified by *some* environmental activists as an industry shill. Let me state that again: for reporting studies funded and conducted by the EPA and FDA and other governmental bodies, I have been attacked - as I am being attacked by you now - for being a supporter of industry. Industry has nothing to do with these studies! I support rigorous science. That's why Sharpe - one of the world's leading independent researchers on reproductive toxicity has spoken out against the witch hunt on BPA. This is why BPA has turned into an intellectual scandal within the regulatory and toxicological community.

                        1. re: TrevorButterworth

                          It has been established that some BPA infiltrates into our food though, no?

                          While the FDA currently believes that BPA is safe at the very low levels that occur in some foods it is continuing its review which includes supporting ongoing research.

                          1. re: scoopG

                            The most reliable measures of active BPA - which is to say isotopically labeled BPA - in the blood is less than 1 percent. The pharmacokinetic work by the FDA has modeled the impact of this in maternal and fetal environments and has found nothing. You can read more about this here


                            Additionally, two EPA-funded studies (presented at AAAS, and soon to be published, I believe) noted that the level of active BPA in humans is up to 1,000,000 times lower than some "low dose studies" which claimed the possibility of adverse effects. Second, this level of active BPA is vastly lower than would be required to activate the receptors involved in breast cancer. The FDA has just finished a 90-day feeding study on rats in which a large range of doses were administered - again, advance previews of this data show nothing. There are many other studies wrapping up under the umbrella of the National Toxicology Program and the National Center for Toxicological Research. As one FDA scientist put it to me, no chemical has been as extensively analyzed as BPA has.

                            1. re: TrevorButterworth

                              Can you cite papers or written material that are not written by you?

                              Here's what the Mayo Clinic says:


                              I think any reasonable person can conclude that the the final results are not in.

                              1. re: scoopG

                                The pieces are about the research; they have links to the papers that are reported on within.

                          2. re: TrevorButterworth

                            Are you actually suggesting that smaller studies are somehow less controlled than larger ones? Are you suggesting that FDA and EPA studies are independent compared to university studies?

                            1. re: ennuisans

                              By definition, a small sample is less controlled for randomness than a larger one. If you familiarize yourself with the National Toxicology Program's guidelines for doing research on BPA, you will, I think, get a better sense of this. Moreover, as you will note from Landis et al. in Nature, and Young in Significance, the problems with small studies has reached near-crisis proportions within the regulatory community.



                              And while you are at it, you should probably read this for some more historical perspective:


                              1. re: TrevorButterworth

                                And are FDA and EPA studies more independent than university studies? You didn't mention that.

                                1. re: ennuisans

                                  I see you replied without reading Landis or Young, which answer your question comprehensively. "Independence" is largely meaningless in this regard. Academic researchers have to bring in grants but the grants tend to be small and so the studies tend to be small. A two year multi-generational reproductive toxicity test can cost upwards of $500,000. Small studies *tend* to not have the statistical power to produce reliable effects, and this is most acute with observational and cross sectional studies (of which there have been many with BPA - all getting a lot of media attention because they produce easy-to-understand "BPA linked to X" headlines. Young, in the significance paper shows why these are unreliable. The lack of transparency in university research - the failure to report methods and data fully - identified as pervasive in the life sciences by the NIH workshop in Landis, and as hugely problematic - contrasts with EPA and FDA work which is fully transparent - i.e., all the data are available for other researchers to analyze.

                                  1. re: TrevorButterworth

                                    That reply was to an earlier post, not to the one where you cited Landis and Young. At this point we are getting into whether scientific analysis is valid and not whether you are an unbiased writer. You still are. So no, I have not read those.

                            2. re: TrevorButterworth

                              And separately let me say I am not attacking you. I am saying you are biased. We are all biased. It's just that you are pretending that you are not, and that is ridiculous.

                              1. re: ennuisans

                                It is meaningless to say one is biased in favor of statistical rigor which is simply a claim to truth that is no different than not being biased in favor of statistical rigor. Science has a way of establishing validity within its own discourse. You are either scientific or you're not. If you are claiming to be scientific, you have a rational obligation to consider the evidence pro and contra according to scientific principles. This is why so many scientists within the EPA and FDA are furious about BPA - a small group of well-funded scientists funded by the NIEHS simply will not admit that they can't make their case by established, rational means. This is changing, by the way. But you will have to follow my reporting to find out how and why. You started out calling me a stealth shill for industry... I have tried to answer this without getting personal and by referencing studies and data. We are far from Gibney's book, which does not deal with BPA. I can do no more at this point.

                                1. re: TrevorButterworth

                                  You have, other than your initial post in this encounter, refrained well from being personal in this, and despite my admitted irreverence in my initial post, I hope I have as well. For what it's worth I would still buy you a beer.

                                  "You are scientific or you are not" is however ridiculous. You are scientific if you are a scientist, and neither you nor I are, however much we might like to apply the science. You show a predilection to be enthusiastic to the science that favors industry and hostile to the science that does not. This is no different from the 3 color web page that supports the other findings.

                                  But you do perform a service. It is far too easy for us to glom onto what people say about food science without doing proper research. So much about food depends upon personal taste that we might find ourselves getting lazy, but when it comes to food safety the information is out there, and if we are going to put it on our web sites (or our forum posts) we should be able to defend our positions as well as we can.

                                  Mr Butterworth likes to say that facts speak for themselves, but they do not. Facts are meaningless without context, and it is up to each of us to provide that context. If we do not, he will.

                  2. re: TrevorButterworth

                    Now a lengthy investigative story by Meg Kissinger and Susanne Rust (Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, 23 August 2009), BPA industry fights back, reports that Butterworth is a poseur, claiming to be a journalist but in fact participating in a broad effort by the bisphenol A industry to protect this material from government regulation. Based on a review of its financial reports, STATS, according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, is really a branch of the Center for Media and Public Affairs. According to the MJS, "that group was paid by the tobacco industry to monitor news stories about the dangers of tobacco."

                    1. re: rocksteady619

                      And here's the response to that article, which shows the extraordinarily devious lengths the MJS went to protect its prize winning investigation from scrutiny while not replying to a single, substantive scientific criticism in the original piece.

                      Pay close attention to the way the reporters ripped quotes out of context.


                  3. re: ennuisans

                    I am not a subscriber but I was able to access the review through a Google search for the following (quotation marks as indicated):

                    "Something to Chew On" gibney butterworth

                  4. Mr. Butterworth's views can be dismissed on two fronts. First, he is associated with STATS, which he claims to be a non-partisan, scientific, organization that distributes statistics that are in the public interest. Is this last claim truthful or is it sly propaganda? Who funds STATS and what biases does this
                    organization exhibit. The funding is not obvious.

                    From sourcewatch:

                    The Statistical Assessment Service (STATS) touts itself as a "non-profit, non-partisan organization" but its funders are not transparent. It is an arm, or "sister organization," of the Center for Media and Public Affairs (CMPA).

                    STATS promotes itself as a disinterested, non-partisan guardian of scientific and statistical integrity to often unsuspecting media outlets. It has been surprisingly successful in this guise, with other organizations citing STATS. [1]

                    From its inception, however, STATS has repeatedly attacked environmentalists, civil libertarians, feminists and other "liberals." The first director of STATS, David Murray, was not a statistician at all. His academic training was in anthropology, but he was often described in the media as a "statistician" when he commented on various topics.

                    link for futher info if interested

                    7 Replies
                    1. re: ElsieB

                      Source watch had to significantly revise its entry on stats because of the scale of error: for years it couldn't even get our address right. It offers no proof to discount our explanation of our funding sources and it conveniently leaves out all the examples where we have challenged boot camps and the war on drugs. Murray left over a decade ago and has been replaced by an MIT phd in maths. Everything about source watch suggests it has a far left agenda of its own.

                      1. re: TrevorButterworth

                        Again, you failed to document the funding sources. It seems that the latter are very right wing--including the Koch Brothers and the American Enterprise Institute. So let's jettison the claim of objectivity. Even without knowledge of the funding, one can see from the behavior of STATS that it has a corporate (vs consumer) perspective. Perhaps most importantly, re your argument is complete lack of any pretense of a scientific argument. Your thesis seems to be: Silly you for being afraid of GM products. Here's the concern, which all molecular scientists recognize: It is not possible at this time to insure that these products are safe. Such a conclusion would requires many long-term studies done by impartial scientists (vs the corporate sponsors). These studies have not been done. Why is this so important? Based on modern knowledge of genetics and epigenetics, it is fair to say the long-term consequences of these modifications cannot be predicted. There are too many variables and non-linearities. A lack of evidence that a particular product causes harm is not equivalent to evidence that the product is in fact harmless.

                        1. re: ElsieB

                          " A lack of evidence that a particular product causes harm is not equivalent to evidence that the product is in fact harmless."

                          Nail on the head.

                          This is exactly what seems to confuse these issues, not just on Internet forums, or print media- but everywhere, even in your doctors office. Reputable researchers know all this, however the message gets distorted once the information leaves their control.

                          1. re: ElsieB

                            " A lack of evidence that a particular product causes harm is not equivalent to evidence that the product is in fact harmless."

                            When alcohol and tobacco are legal products I think that holding companies responsible for proving that their "product is in fact harmless" is just another way of trying to stop them from selling their product, period.

                            Water is not harmless if you drink too much of it too fast. Let's not throw GMO's under the bus in a wholesale attempt to avoid "harm" someplace down the line in a hundred years and condemn millions to immediate starvation.

                            1. re: Servorg

                              When alcohol and tobacco are legal products I think that holding companies responsible for proving that their "product is in fact harmless" is just another way of trying to stop them from selling their product, period.

                              I don't get this. At all.

                              1. re: ipsedixit

                                Worries about the harm that GMO crops may do somewhere, sometime, while asking companies to prove them harmless, is an impossible bar to clear. Just try proving something is harmless and you'll see the impossibility of doing so given the example of even water having the potential to harm someone if used "improperly."

                                While at the same time we have legal products that are clearly harmful in real time for millions, That leaves me more than a little nonplussed at the sheer hypocrisy of it all.

                            2. re: ElsieB

                              That's because my flight was about to take off: Searle, Stuart, Scaife and Templeton during the years I have been at STATS. To my knowledge, we have never received Koch money. The work of my colleague Maia Szalavitz in exposing boot camp abuses influenced bipartisan regulation of that industry, so I am happy to have played a very small role in promoting regulation that protected kids from real threats. I also note - contra your criticism - that Grist magazine is rethinking its stance on GMO foods because fanaticism is getting in the way of actually reading what the science says, and distinguishing good from bad (Seralini et al.) science. Anyway - I urge you to read Gibney's book, it will make you rethink just what you think you know about genetics and biology.

                        2. I think people have become too paranoid and overreact towards genetically modified food. Since the beginning of agriculture thousands of years ago, man has manipulated plants and animals.

                          All you have to do is see the original form of foods we eat today is see how much they changed once we manipulated and bred them into having the features we wanted. And, I see genetically modified food as an extension of what agriculture has always done to food. Instead, of taking hundreds of years, we've condensed that process to just a single generation.

                          But, I do question this statement:

                          [QUOTE]Angola, Malawi, Mozambique, Nigeria, Zimbabwe and Sudan," writes Mr. Gibney, "have all rejected food aid shipments on the grounds that they might contain GM grains." ... Africans just want to be as safe as Europeans. But in this case, Africans risk literal blindness, from Vitamin A deficiency[/QUOTE]

                          I suspect that the real reason those African countries reject GM grains as food aid isn't because of concerns of food safety for themselves, but because they fear they will be shut out from exporting food to Japan and the European countries that shun GM foods.

                          When you plant GM foods nearby non-GM foods, there's a real risk of cross-breeding where the GM plants will spread and the non-GM will get 'infected'. Once that happens, it'll be hard to sell those food crops to Japan and European countries that are wary of GM foods.

                          1. I give a lot of credit to Trevor Butterworth for patiently wading thru all of your various attacks and suspicions and answering them. He has no responsibility to defend himself or his work, and it's generous of him to spend his time doing so. I don't see anyone else using their real name. Yes, I agree that one should read skeptically. But his research appears thorough and painstaking. Just because an organization or foundation supports you does not cancel the validity of your work. And just because you take a skeptical look at environmentalists, civil libertarians and feminists doesn't mean you're attacking them. They deserve the same scrutiny as anyone else. And that goes double for mainstream media writing about science: Few reporters dig deep enough to evaluate orginal source material, depending instead on other published reports about those studies. Sometimes they choose not to dig; other times their editors don't afford them the time. I'm glad someone is taking the time to take a close look at those BPA studies and interview the players involved. - Lee Goodwin